What is "uneven development"?

prepared by Patrick Bond

(appears in P.O'Hara (Ed) (1999), The Encyclopaedia of Political Economy, London, Routledge.)

A useful summary of the process of uneven development, as a necessary aspect of capitalism, comes from volume one of Marx's Capital (ch 27, paragraph 15). Here he states that a major contradiction of capitalism is the simultaneous emergence of concentrations of wealth and capital (for capitalists), on the one hand, and poverty and oppression (for workers), on the other. This "general law of capitalist accumulation", as Marx termed it, highlights capital-labor conflict, and is one way to ground a theory of uneven development. But thinking about uneven and combined development dates further back, at least to Marx's Grundrisse (1857-58), where unevenness represents the condition for a transition from one declining mode of production to another rising, more progressive mode. In general terms, then, uneven development can relate to differential growth of sectors, geographical processes, classes and regions at the global, regional, national, sub-national and local level.

The differing conceptual emphases are paralleled by debate surrounding the origins and socioeconomic mechanisms of unevenness. Neil Smith (1990:ch 3) rooted the equalization and differentiation of capital -- the fundamental motions of uneven development -- in the widespread emergence of the division of labor. Ernest Mandel (1968:210) searched even further back, to "private production" among different producers within the same community; insisting that "differences of aptitude between individuals, the differences of fertility between animals or soils, innumerable accidents of human life or the cycle of nature," were responsible for uneven development in production. Political Implications.

Ultimately, it is less the definitional roots of the concept, and more its political implications and contemporary intellectual applications, for which uneven development is known. Leon Trotsky's theory of combined and uneven development -- established in his book Results and Prospects (1905) -- served as an analytical foundation for "permanent revolution". Given the backward state of Russian society in the early twentieth century, due to structured unevenness, both bourgeois (plus nationalist or anti-colonial) and proletarian revolutions could and must be telescoped into a seamless process, led by the working class. (See Howard and King 1989.)

In more measured, less immediately political terms, the debate was revived when Marxist social science regenerated during the 1970s. Here the phenomenon of uneven and combined development in specific (peripheral or semi-peripheral) settings was explained as a process of "articulations of modes of production". In these debates, the capitalist mode of production depends upon earlier modes of production for an additional "superexploitative" subsidy by virtue of reducing the costs of labor power reproduction (Wolpe 1980), even if this did not represent a revolutionary or even transitional moment. Smith (1990:156.141) insists, however, that "it is the logic of uneven development which structures the context for this articulation", rather than the reverse.

That logic entails not only the differential (or "disarticulated") production and consumption of durable goods along class lines (de Janvry 1981). It also embraces the disproportionalities (Hilferding 1910) that emerge between departments of production ~ especially between capital goods and consumer goods, and between circuits and fractions of capital (see CIRCUIT OF SOCIAL CAPITAL). For example, the rise of financial markets during periods of capitalist overproduction crisis amplify unevenness (Bond 1997:ch 1). Or as Aglietta (1976:359) remarks: "Uneven development creates artificial differences in the apparent financial results of firms, which are realized only on credit. These differences favour speculative gains on the financial market." Tendencies towards sectoral unevenness are manifest periodically in financial crisis.

In spatial terms, unevenness has been associated with theories of unequal exchange and forms of core- periphery dominance. This is in part because of their grounding in progressive Third World nationalism. Such debates have had the effect of over-emphasizing interstate relations and under-emphasizing the flows of capital and social struggles that have more decisively shaped local "underdevelopment".

But as David Harvey (1996:295) has argued, historical-geographical materialism entails a consideration of the process of unevenness in more general ways. The fulcrum of geographical unevenness is the differentiated return on investment that creation and/or destruction of entire built environments -- and the social structures that accompany them -- offer to different kinds of investors with different time horizons. Meanwhile, different places compete endlessly with one another to attract investment. In the process they tend to amplifying unevenness, allowing capital to play one local or regional or national class configuration off against others.

Conclusion. Comprehending the uneven development of sector, space and scale is ambitious enough. But there must be, as well, future opportunities to explore systematic unevenness in spheres as diverse as the production and destruction of the environment, social reproduction, and human domination along lines of class, gender and race/ethnicity. Can the theory of uneven development move from political economy through politics and culture, all the while stressing the social damage associated with uneven capitalist development? Uneven development analysis can inform activists intent on reversing unevenness, not because -- as Smith (1990:159) points out -- "our goal is some rigidly conceived `even development'. This would make little sense. Rather, the goal is to create socially determined patterns of differentiation and equalisation which are driven not by the logic of capital but genuine social choice."

See also: convergence and social capability; business cycles; development and underdevelopment; urban and regional political economy; hegemony in the world economy; comparative advantage and unequal exchange; distribution of income; environmental and ecological political economy; development political economy.

Selected References

Aglietta, Michel. (1974) A Theory of Capitalist Regulation. London: New Left Books, 1979.
Bond, Patrick. (1997) Uneven Zimbabwe: A Study of Finance, Development and Underdevelopment. Trenton: Africa World Press and Harare: University of Zimbabwe Press.
de Janvry, Alain. (1982) The Agrarian Question and Reformism in Latin America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David. (1996) Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Hilferding, Rudolf. (1910) Finance Capital. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.
Howard, Michael; and John King. (1989) A History of Marxian Economics. Volume 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Mandel, Ernest. (1962) Marxist Economic Theory. Volume 1. London: Merlin Press, 1968.
Smith, Neil. (1990) Uneven Development. Second Edition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Wolpe, Harold. (1980) (Editor) The Articulations of Modes of Production. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.